Vivekananda appeared on the American scene at the Parliament of Religions during the World's Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893. in his very first speech, he began with the words "sisters and Brother of America." This warm and sincere greeting, addressed to an audience of several thousand, stirred his listeners who responded with an ovation of several minutes. Here was a man with a message of tolerance, a plea to end bigotry, and appeal to recognize the equal truth of all religions, and an assertion of the innate divinity of every man, woman, and child. It was a new message for America. Such affinity developed between Vivekananda and Americans that he stayed in the West from 1893 to 1897, and came a second time from 1899 to 1900, teaching to one and all.
We have compiled this book of Vivekananda's teachings, Living at the Source, in order to commemorate his appearance at the Parliament of Religions, and to make known his contribution to the living stream of spirituality in America. It is in keeping with Vivekananda's embrace of the whole of America that some fifty Vedantins from all parts of the country worked on the material for Living at the Source. This group not only selected Vivekananda's words from the eight volumes of The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, but many of them also participated in other tasks in the preparation of this book.
In view of the fact that the quest for self-knowledge has so many different starting points, the chapters of Living at the Source do not follow any particular order. The reader could just as well begin with "The Human Condition" as with "Who Am I?," "Work as Self-Transformation," or any other chapter that captures his or her interest. Indeed, to readers who prefer to think independently, a set chapter order may not be at all appealing. Rather, they may want to browse through Living at the Source to discover for themselves their own way to self-knowledge. In any case, it is possible to form a practical philosophy based on these selections from Vivekananda's works.
We want to call attention to two matters. First, Vivekananda wrote and spoke in the language of his times. Consequently, he used the words man, men, and mankind to refer to women as well other. And second, in the subtitle, the Yoga Teachings of Vivekananda, we have used the personal self with God, or the universal Self. Vivekananda himself used yoga to describe his teachings when he first taught in America. Later he called his teachings "Vedanta."
The selections that follow are taken from Vivekananda's lectures, class talks, letters, newspaper interviews, and conversations. Each selection is followed by a volume and page citation indicating where it appears in the Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda.
Living at the source is powerful medicine. Link remedies straight from God and Nature, the ideas and utterances in this book, act directly on life, mind, and spirit. Their tenor is strength, because “strength is the medicine for the world’s disease.” Geared to the facts of the workaday world, yet powerfully attuned to the true and holy, they strike a supremely human never. Stirring the will, they set in motion all kindly of strivings for self-knowledge, spiritual wholeness, generosity of spirit, and “courage never to submit or yield.” All the sting, self, and saver of prophetic discourse stamp this book; it lives, makes live, and cuts through delusion.
The prophet whose words and ideas animate Living at the Source is the great Indian monk Swami Vivekananda. A century ago Americans hailed him as the man of the hour, but now his name is rarely heard. When he landed in America in 1893, Vivekananda was thirty years old, fit and daring-a do-or-die hero tempered in fire and holiness. He had a labor to perform. His dying master, Shri Ramakrishna, had written on a scrap of paper: “Naren [Vivekananda] will teach people when he will speak with a raised voice at home and outside.” And so it happened. America was the land where he first raised his voice, and where he forged his message. “I call upon men,” he said, “to make themselves conscious of their divinity within.” To understand this holy stranger, his quality and force-indeed, to have any idea of Vivekananda at all-we being with the facts of life. These, as out-of-the ordinary as they are, can be ticked off quickly; the challenge is to make sense of them and grasp their significance. What we relate here is the merest run-through, but necessary for all that.
Vivekananda was born in India, them a British colony administered by the East India Company; the date was 12 January 1863, a few days after Lincoln had signed the Emancipation proclamation. Vivekananda’s family, the aristocratic Dattas of Calcutta, named him, their first surviving son, Narendranatha. He throve, acted, and came to manhood with a bearing not unlike that of a Renaissance prince. It was a manner he kept even as a monk wandering India’s hills and heartlands.
As a child Narendranath was quick, audacious, and alive to his fingertips. Headstrong and not to be interfered with, he led first his mother, then others, on a merry chase. But because he was handsome and talented and provided wonderful company, friends crowded around him. In school and college he was in constant demand. There was no reason at all why he should not have enjoyed his enchanted life to the full. And so he did, until the time came when his fastidious Indian intellect seized upon the theories and practices of the western life and mind. Attracted and easily subverted, first by the West’s readiness to reason its way to truth and beauty, and second, by its active, often bloody quest for liberty and social justice, Narendranath began to acquire his unusual mastery of the West’s history and intellectual tradition. Indeed, his early identification with the mind of the West remained lifelong.
Meanwhile, into the midst of his intellectual joy crashed unreason’s thunderbolt. This was God, Whom Narendranath had always loved and meditated upon, but Whom reason could not prove to exist. So now, driven not only by the love of learning, but by the desire for God, he searched for a genuine God-authority. He became a kind of roving threat, asking first this holy man and then that one his forthright question: “Sir, have you seen God?” At last, Shri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, who dwelled in a temple-garden outside Calcutta, answered him a vigorous yes, and played his bold questioner like a fish. Narendranath had met his Master. He also found God during a six-year period filled with spiritual incident and human woe. After initial revolts and continuing protests against his Master’s counsel-mainly in the name of reason-he experienced God in His many states and aspects, and realized his own eternal oneness with the divine Self. On the human side, his father’s sudden death hurled Narendranath’s family to the edge of ruin, and himself into the job market. As if that were not enough, Ramakrishna died two years later, leaving him in charge of a dozen brother-disciples, all of them spiritual giants, eager to renounce the world for a life in God.
During the next years, from 1887 to 1893, Narendranath lived either with his brother monks in their makeshift monastery or by himself on the open road. His experience as a wandering monk all but undid him. Although his own holy-man hardships toughened his fiber and tempered his steel, the cradle-to-grave hardships of India’s people sent him into bouts of grief and despair that precipitated a chronic anguish. The direct encounter with India’s broken, impoverished people transformed him once and for all; every last drop of elitism was drained out of him, every concern for himself dissolved. His only recourse was to devise a plan to raise up his people, the wretched of the earth. In this wise, and with this end in view, he came to America.
The occasion seemed ready-made: that year, 1893, Chicago’s great Columbian Exposition was to include a Parliament of Religions, to which representatives of all the world religions had been invited. It was to this parliament that Narendranath, now known as Vivekananda, came unknown and uninvited. A handful of enthusiastic friends and disciples, mainly from Madras, outfitted him and paid for his passage.
At the Parliament Vivekananda raised his voice high and found himself famous. Many reasons have been advanced for his instant acclaim: the substance and energy of his talks, the magnetism of his presence, the youth and beauty of his person, the magic of his eloquence, his fierce sincerity and bursts of humor, the range and power of his intellect. To the popular mind he was glamour to feast on; to the cultivated mind, a shock never fully sustained.
Vivekananda was fully aware of the stir he was causing, but he was not diverted from trying to raise money for India. His idea was to send the proceeds from his lectures around the country to his brother monks and disciples in India; they, in turn, would equip themselves to go out among India’s villages, bringing men, women, and children the rudiments of knowledge. Education, not religion, was his first prescription for raising up his people.
This plan never succeeded. The reasons for Vivekananda’s failure to earn enough, and the tremendous work he did accomplish in India notwithstanding, can be passed over. For Americans, the critical fact is that during this first Western sojourn of roughly three years, Vivekananda immersed himself in the American ethos so thoroughly that he became American in spirit and in a certain sense America’s prophet. With raised voice and plain words he made clear to the American people their inmost identity, the Self; and he exhorted them to shake off the hypnotic inertia hiding this infinite Divinity within. Inevitably, out of the argument, energy, and direction of his reasoning, Vivekananda gave new life and meaning to the self-evident truths upon which America stood. In essence, he told Americans that they could not have the one without the other: they could not experience themselves as the Self, without the perfect practice of freedom and equality. Nor could they have perfect freedom and equality without knowledge of the Self.
Yet Vivekananda’s swift synthesis of his own spiritual humanism with America’s democratic ideals was not deliberate. It simply happened, like a chemical reaction. Here was a Hindu holy man to whom, quite literally, nothing human was alien; and around him buzzed and crackled this new, confident, tremendously open and vital society, with whom he rubbed elbows. In no time at all he loved this “Yankee land” and became as Yankee as the next. Yet he remained spiritual to the core. He was, in sum, a new type of man, the prototype of a new ideal-the spiritual democrat.
Inevitably, the “Americanization” of Vivekananda developed a terrific spiritual spin because of his master-reflex to spiritualize everything. In plain English, he perceived as divine the whole of reality, including the traits, values, and practices of human society. Further, he was able to see at once which “American” ideas, attitudes, and practices contributed to human wholeness and spiritual well-being, and which of these traits were indispensable. These came to figure in his message to the world-at-large and. have become inextricably united with the spiritual aims and methods of “Practical Vedanta.”
Vedanta is the philosophy of the Upanishads, India’s ancient sacred texts; it is also the bedrock upon which India’s diverse theologies and religious rest. Because the seed-concept of Vivekananda’s massage-the identity of the individual soul with the universal soul-came straight out of the Upanishads, he called his messages “Vedanta.” And it was “practical,” because he wanted all men and woman to live in the conscious grip of this truth-as, indeed, he himself did-and as he believed Americans were ready to do. In his view, the particular American attitudes and behaviors that enabled them to get on in life also fitted them for the pursuit of Self-knowledge.
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